It is 1825 and convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) has been awaiting Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) letter of release, showing that she has served her 7 year prison term and is now free. Clare, her husband and new baby are forced to follow the Lieutenant wherever he is stationed, which has now become Tasmania in the middle of the violent “Black Wars” against the Aborigines.
After Hawkins commits an unspeakable act against Clare, he escapes into the interior of Tasmania. Hunting him through the wilds driven by her need for revenge, Clare enlists the help of a reluctant Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).
As Clare, the nightingale and Billy, the Blackbird pursues the dangerous lieutenant, they discover that they are both powerless in the eyes of the British colonizers – forming a tentative bond that could save their lives or end them.
“The Nightingale” is a period piece about prejudice, power and understanding.
Clare has had everything taken away from her, her husband, her baby and her dignity. Billy has also lost everything as the Tasmanian Aborigines are decimated by disease, raped, enslaved and murdered by the British military.
Writer/director Jennifer Kent brings a brutally real, graphically detailed story of murder and rape. She refuses to turn the camera away from the faces of women during sexual assault and the viscera and gore of murder are shown as the raw emotion of loss glisten with the accompanying tears.
Unfortunately, showing raw emotion, and violence does not fully build characters. Audiences quickly find their footing in rooting for Clare, however, this quiet film alludes to the internal struggles of its characters through Irish and Aboriginal folk songs. These songs are beautiful, but fail to flesh out the complex emotional states of the main characters.
The historical nature of this barbaric story adds an interesting context. The parallels between the United States’ slave history and that of the British colonization and enslavement of Aborigines in Tasmania is not lost, as an ironclad social class structure ensures that only white males have power.
The various story elements begin swirling around one another setting up tension and pulling viewers toward the inevitable confrontation. That third act conclusion never really congeals into a satisfying finish, leaving the story message murky. Add the fact that this film arrives at two and quarter hours long and audiences will feel the drag in the middle of the film.
“The Nightingale” swoops into theaters as an aggressive period piece, but concludes as a soft opening of wings upon an ocean breeze, offering a story of revenge, but not necessarily one of hope.
Writer-director Jennifer Kent has followed up her outstanding horror thriller “The Babadook” with a meditation on extreme violence, prejudice and revenge.
With its extreme graphic violence, “The Nightingale” is hard to watch. While I will not reveal ‘spoilers,’ I would have preferred more discretion than brutal rapes against two women. The cruelty is so intolerable, I had to turn my eyes away several times.
Yes, violence against women is horrible, but is it necessary to show repeated vicious acts at the hands of these disgusting men? These characters are so vile -- and it’s not just physical violence but frequent verbal abuse too. Man’s inhumanity to man is on full display to make a point, and yes, we get it.
Aisling Franciosi, as the cherub-faced young wife and mother, and Baykali Ganambarr, in his first film, are strong together and separately. Their eventual understanding and protectiveness towards each other is a welcome development. Sam Claflin, previously a romantic hero, makes a despicable villain.
The film is skillfully made and shot, but at 2 hours and 16 minutes’ running time, its excessive and in need of editing.
Of course, this film is powerful. But its harshness may prevent others from watching.